In a move inspired by the IRS’ scrutiny of ‘tea party’ and other groups, the Olympia-based Freedom Foundation has filed records requests with four Washington state agencies asking for employee emails and other documents using 18 different phrases or words such as “Tea Party” or “Mormon” or “redneck.”
The search is for all documents created since January 2010. The search terms include everything from gun nut to NRA, Freedom Foundation, libertarian, conservative, Catholic, Christian, right wing, far right, racist, teabagger, and hicks.
“We tried to come up with terms that we thought would be logical to be used in correspondence about possibly targeted groups,’’ Glen Morgan, property-rights director for the nonprofit organization, which has a hard-right reputation after its battles with Thurston County officials over land-use limits in environmentally sensitive zones and its perennial criticism of government regulations and spending.
The requests were filed in May and the libertarian-style think tank is looking for evidence of actual bias in the attitudes of state workers toward the public and regulated organizations.
Freedom Foundation has long had a tax exempt status with the IRS so it was not caught up in the IRS tax controversy – although a Tea Party group in the Tri-Cities was, according to TFF chief executive Jonathan Bechtle, who spoke to The Olympian about the IRS matter in mid-May.
Morgan said his state-agency project “was an outgrowth of that. People complain about bias all the time – it doesn’t always mean it’s true. People on both ends of the political spectrum complain about it.’’
Officials at the affected agencies – Ecology, Revenue, Puget Sound Partnership and Labor and Industries – have been working with the think tank to narrow its requests.
Ecology says its first batch of responsive emails from its 1,500 employees will be handed over July 18, according to emails it sent to The Freedom Foundation. Puget Sound Partnership, a small agency of 42 employees, has provided some documents already. Revenue plans to hand over its first installment of documents from more than 1,000 employees by Aug. 30 but it could take a year or more to be fully responsive, a spokeswoman said.
Ecology spokeswoman Sandi Peck said every one of Ecology’s staffers must individually search emails for the 18 terms covering the period from January 2010 to May 15, 2013 – which she said is when the records request was submitted.
“It’s been a few weeks that we’ve been working to get some clarification,’’ Peck said. “It is not easy … If we have it we have to produce it.’’
“It’s going to take time but we can’t charge for staff time. This is part of the system’’ of disclosure, Peck added. “We take the public disclosure requests seriously. It’s finding that balance of needing to be complete, having that other work to do, being efficient and producing the records as quickly as possible.’’
Alicia Lawver of Puget Sound Partnership said the requests have been taking up time to fulfill.
“We currently have two administrative staff fairly consumed with work responding to the two Freedom Foundation requests and two from Citizens for Sustainable Development. This does not count time each individual staff person takes to go through personal computers and files,” Lawver said in an email.
“After individual staff members go through files, documents have to be reviewed to determine whether the document is really responsive to the request and to look for any sensitive/confidential information – such as health information – that may need to be considered for redacting,” Lawver added.
As a result of the recent request, PSP “purchased an FTP server and software to help with vast email searches.”
Morgan said he was unaware of other groups making this kind of request in other states but would not be surprised if others have done it. He disputed the idea it would be a burden and said technology makes it fairly easy and simple to search electronic documents for specific terms to quickly produce relevant ones.
Morgan also said it is too early to say what the requests will turn up because most documents have not been turned over yet. He did not give details but indicated there are references in some emails to Catholics and Mormons, which he painted as derogatory.
Lawver said the only derogatory emails the PSP has found were in spam or junk-mail folders.
Morgan said agencies have been responsive so far although there is a small dispute with Ecology over possible charges for scanning paper documents into electronic form.
The Freedom Foundation is the same group that went to court to challenge former governor Chris Gregoire’s use of executive privilege to shield records from disclosure. That case is awaiting a decision by the state Supreme Court, but Gov. Jay Inslee vowed as a candidate more than a year ago not to exercise that privilege – and the foundation applauded his willingness earlier this year to release documents Gregoire had shielded.
David Postman, chief spokesman for Inslee, said there will be many hours of agencies’ staff time wrapped up in answering the records request, which he described as a “big, broad request.’’
“It’s a lot of documents,” Postman said. “But it’s what the law requires. We do it every day in state government.”
Postman said agencies might need a couple of months to get everything requested to the foundation. “It’s a lot of data and it’s going to take a while to compile it and deliver it,’’ he said, adding that Morgan and the foundation “are going to have to look through a lot of records to find what they are looking for. Of course we hope they don’t find any email that is inappropriate in any way.’’
If indeed the foundation turns up emails with derogatory comments about Mormons, Catholics or others, Postman said that would be unfortunate. If the foundation finds something offensive, he added: “I’m sure we will hear from them.’’